Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part III

Shof’tim: August 25th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

What do you do when a text you revere and hold holy has passages which go against your notion of goodness and morality? Do you figure that your understanding of ethics is faulty and accept the holy command? Or, do you reject the whole book, figuring that anything with such an unfair or unrighteous decree must be wholly bad? Or, do your interpret the problematic passages in ways that defangs their poison. This third path, as I have observed over the last two weeks, is a long and venerable tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

These interpretations have generally involved non-literal readings of the passages, and we found, for example, that both historical records and Biblical records suggest that the Israelites did not destroy the Canaanite population when they moved into the Land—despite the command to do so in Deuteronomy and the report that they had done so in Joshua. We also considered the context of difficult passages, and found that understanding them in situ renders them much less hostile.

This week, I want to speak to the motivation of various interpreters/commentators and how it can play a major role in the messages found in holy texts.

The historian Ellis Rivkin used to note an interesting fact in regard to Christian and Muslim anti-Semitism. Though both religions have a long history of anti-Jewish teachings and actions—sometimes heinously cruel, neither Christianity nor Islam has ever united their disparate elements in the mission of ridding the world of Jews and Judaism. The record of anti-Semitism in both religions is remarkably spotty. When one king or sultan or bishop would embark on a campaign against Jews—burning the Talmud, massacring a village or a valley, or expelling all Jews, another Christian or Muslim leader down the road would welcome the Jews and treat them well.

If eliminating Jews or Judaism is a real pillar of either religion, why would there be this division of religious purpose? Dr. Rivkin’s reading (and that of many Christian and Muslim scholars!) is that neither Christianity nor Islam is inherently anti-Jewish or anti-Judaism. This suggests that the anti-Semites in both religions are doing some interpreting of their own, finding hostile messages because of their own motivations or agendas—and not those of the holy texts themselves.

What, Dr. Rivkin asked, would be a trigger for taking generally ignored anti-Jewish passages and using them for great evil? Looking at case after case of anti-Semitic episodes, Dr. Rivkin noticed a pattern. Every time, Christians or Moslems mounted a major onslaught against Jews or Judaism, it was connected to an economic crisis. Though generally ignored, anti-Semitic passages were been dredged up in the midst of financial disaster and used by demagogic religious leaders. In some cases, the demagoguery was to project blame from the real culprits to an easily other-able group. In other cases, the demagoguery was used by one group to steal money from another.

Let me give two examples. Though the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula expelled both Muslims and Jews during the 15th Century, the only Jews remaining in Spain after 1492 were converts to Christianity—sincere converts. Many became priests, nuns, and even bishops. But, when a major economic crisis hit Spain, all of a sudden, Tomas Torquemada and his Inquisitors, based in one major Spanish economic center, discovered a whole network of secret Jews—all from the other major economic center. Despite all those romantic legends about persecuted Jews secretly practicing their religion, the only evidence for this secret Judaism comes from (1) claims by the Inquisition and (2) confessions exacted under torture. All these Jewish families who wanted to practice Judaism could have fled with the others—both during and following the 100 years of the Expulsion. The ones who stayed accepted Christianity and were real Christians. They were known as coming from Jewish parentage, and many occupied a position in Spanish cultural and intellectual society similar to the way New York Jewish intellectuals have been so influential in America. However, there is no evidence that any of them were anything other than loyal Christians. This pernicious myth of secret Judaism was used to dispossess the leadership and wealth of a major Spanish economic center so that the other center—Torquemada’s—could emerge wealthier and more powerful.

A second example comes from Russia in the latter part of the 19th Century and the terrible pogroms that caused great suffering and lots of emigration. The real problem was an extravagant imperial budget being financed by taxing a pre-industrial economy. The Russian tax base was much lower than that of Western European kingdoms, and the Czar had to tax much harder to enjoy an opulent life—and to run the Empire. Blaming the heavy tax burden on the Jews was a way of deflecting the criticism that eventually led to the various Russian Revolutions. Life in Russia for Jews was not wonderful, but the imperial regime fomented the discovery and use of anti-Semitic texts to inflame the peasant mobs.

The same pattern can be seen in countless European and African and Asian outbreaks of anti-Semitism. The hostile passages are there in the Christian or Muslim texts, but they are not important to the faith. The salient factor is the attitude or motivation of the religious leaders who, all of a sudden, find the passages and use them to promote other than religious agendas. It is a cynical and manifestly ungodly use of religion, and it has brought great suffering to the world.

And so, as we look at our own difficult passages, the key is to remember that ancient documents need to be interpreted for both ancient and modern readers—and that our interpreting needs to be done with kind, just, and godly motivations.